On Cheese, Sleep and Nightmares

Unlike Mike, who spends his days in a dinosaur and doctor who lined back bedroom surrounded by overly-sociable cats and DVDs of 90s kids TV, I work in an office for a living. Which means, office conversations, where office topics come up. So it means I know rather too much about Heat Magazine, Glee, Tinnie Tempah and films like ‘The Hangover’ and ‘The Hangover 2: Hangoverer’. And it also means when a standard nugget of urban myth or popular received wisdom comes up, people look in my way to dispute it.

Sometimes, that’s not too difficult – it turns out the world is in fact facing genuine climate change, and the US government were not involved in 9/11, and that dog’s CAN look up.

Still, there was one that caught me out for a little while, when a colleague of mine casually mentioned avoiding cheese before bed, so as to avoid getting nightmares. This is something that’s a real piece of received wisdom here in the UK – I’m not sure of it elsewhere in the world – but it’s something most people would have heard of. It’s the kind of thing your mum says to you, like the thing about not feeling the benefit of your coat if you wear it indoors. It’s also the kinda thing Mythbusters would look at, although it would represent a bit of a low-fi myth to bust, a bit like proving that once you pop you can actually stop if you like.

Now, I was fairly certain that it would be unlikely, as I couldn’t imagine a mechanism, but that doesn’t mean as such that it’s untrue, and I’m often wrong – probably more often than not. No, wait, that’s not right. See, I’m at it again. So I thought I’d check it out. First stop, Google, which picked up a few Daily Mail articles and the BBC Focus Magazine, the latter of which suggested:

“Any heavy meal before bed can make you spend more time in REM sleep and therefore dream more. But there is no evidence to suggest that cheese is particularly effective at causing dreams, good or bad.”

This seemed decent information, but a little obvious. How would a folk myth arise when the answer was so simple? I wasn’t sure, so I thought I’d look into it a little more. Which brought me to Wikipedia’s entry for Cheese:

Effect on sleep
A study by the British Cheese Board in 2005 to determine the effect of cheese upon sleep and dreaming discovered that, contrary to the idea that cheese commonly causes nightmares, the effect of cheese upon sleep was positive.

The majority of the two hundred people tested over a fortnight claimed beneficial results from consuming cheeses before going to bed, the cheese promoting good sleep. Six cheeses were tested and the findings were that the dreams produced were specific to the type of cheese.

Although the apparent effects were in some cases described as colorful and vivid, or cryptic, none of the cheeses tested were found to induce nightmares. However, the six cheeses were all British. The results might be entirely different if a wider range of cheeses were tested.[27] Cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid that has been found to relieve stress and induce sleep.[28]

This struck me as rather interesting, as it sounded like a bit of a PR stunt to me, too – not least because, now, if you Google cheese and nightmares you find references to this study by the British Cheese Board EVERYWHERE. Really. It’s a successful bit of PR, that’s for sure. One of the places I found references to it was on the British Cheese Board website from September 2005, unsurprisingly, titled:

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of Cheese

Lovely bit of punning there, I’m sure you’ll agree. The Daily Mail agreed, as they kept this as the title of their news article based entirely on this press release.

The age old myth that cheese gives you nightmares has finally been laid to rest this week following the release of a new study carried out by the British Cheese Board.

The in-depth Cheese & Dreams study, a first of its kind, reveals that eating cheese before bed will not only aid a good night’s sleep but different cheeses will in fact cause different types of dreams.

Of the 200 volunteers who participated in the week-long study, 72% slept well every night, 67% remembered their dreams and none recorded experiencing nightmares after eating a 20g piece of cheese half an hour before going to sleep.

So, it appears in this study at least, cheese doesn’t give you nightmares. But they go further than that:

85% of females who ate Stilton had some of the most unusual dreams of the whole study. 65% of people eating Cheddar dreamt about celebrities, over 65% of participants eating Red Leicester revisited their schooldays, all female participants who ate British Brie had nice relaxing dreams whereas male participants had cryptic dreams, two thirds of all those who ate Lancashire had a dream about work and over half of Cheshire eaters had a dreamless sleep.

Commenting on the study, Neil Stanley, PhD Director of Sleep Research HPRU Medical Research Centre at the University of Surrey says: “The Cheese and Dreams study conducted by the British Cheese Board is the first study of its kind and suggests that eating cheese before you go to bed may actually aid a good night’s sleep.

What is particularly interesting is the reported effect different types of British cheese have on influencing the content of dreams. It seems that selecting the type of cheese you eat before bedtime may help determine the very nature of often colourful and vivid cheese induced dreams”

There’s also a note on the history of the myth, which proved useful:

The origins of the cheese gives you nightmares’ myth are inconclusive. Some believe that it may have originated from Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, who blamed “a crumb of cheese” on his night-time visitations; others people believe that its origins may lie with a Fifties’ health scare when cheese was found to be problematic for people taking a certain anti-depressant.

This last point about the anti-depressants seems to be genuine – as attested by Chris Smith of the hugely-popular and iTunes-chart-ruling Naked Scientists, also from 2005:

“Famously, when some of the first antidepressants were invented they worked by blocking the breakdown of monoamine / indolamine nerve transmitters including dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin by inhibiting an enzyme called MAO (monoamine oxidase). But when patients on these drugs ate cheese it could provoke periods of life-threateningly high blood pressure and a racing heart rate, through the uncontrolled release of adrenaline as there was no MAO to breakdown the tyramine in the diet.”

So, looks to be a genuine potential source of the myth, then. But, going back to the press release the don’t stop with just dispelling the myth, annoyingly:

“Now that our Cheese & Dreams study has finally debunked the myth that cheese gives you nightmares we hope that people will think more positively about eating cheese before bed,” says Nigel White, British Cheese Board secretary. “In fact, our results show that eating different types of British cheese can make your dreams more interesting so sleep could now become a whole new adventure.”

Hmm. Sounds bullshitty to me. Let’s take a look at the study:

The British Cheese Board’s Cheese & Dreams study was undertaken during a seven day period with 200 participants (100 male and 100 female). Six different types of British cheese were given to an equal number of participants. The cheeses included: Stilton, Cheddar, Red Leicester, British Brie, Lancashire and Cheshire.

During one week, each participant ate a 20g piece of cheese 30 minutes before going to sleep and recorded the type of sleep and dreams that they experienced.

So we have a pretty poorly-controlled study here, then – subjective self-reported outcomes, no placebo wing, etc. The results are therefore pretty dubious, too – I’ll read you them, and you can see if you can spot what’s potentially going on here:

  • Red Leicester proved to be brilliant for helping participants to get a good night’s sleep – one quarter slept well every single night of the study, and 83% of all nights under the influence of Red Leicester were good sleep experiences. As for dreams, Red Leicester is the cheese to choose if you are feeling nostalgic about your past – over 60% of participants eating this cheese revisited their schooldays, or long-lost childhood friends, or previous family homes and hometowns.
  • Stilton-eating participants enjoyed their sleep too – over two thirds had good sleep experiences during five out of the seven nights. However, if you want some vivid or crazy dreams, the King of British cheeses is the one for you – particularly if you are female. While 75% of men in this category experienced odd and vivid dreams, a massive 85% of females who ate Stilton had some of the most bizarre dreams of the whole study – although none were described as bad experiences. Highlights included talking soft toys, lifts that move sideways, a vegetarian crocodile upset because it could not eat children, dinner party guests being traded for camels, soldiers fighting with each other with kittens instead of guns and a party in a lunatic asylum.
  • British Brie caused all participants to sleep very well, but dreams varied between males and females; women tended to experience very nice dreams, such as Jamie Oliver cooking dinner in their kitchens, or relaxing on a sunny beach. By contrast, the men who ate Brie experienced rather odd, obscure dreams, such as driving against a battleship, or having a drunken conversation with a dog.
  • If you are thinking of changing career, or just suspect there could be a slightly more ideal job out there, snack on a lump of creamy Lancashire before bed and you might get some guidance; two thirds of all Lancashire participants had a dream about work – but only 30% of these involved the participants’ real-life occupations. One ambitious dreamer saw herself as a successful Prime Minister – one of her popular reforms involved teaching useful finance in schools, including how to choose the right mortgage.
  • Cheddar-eating participants tended to dream of celebrities, ranging from the participant’s family sitting in a pub with Jordan, to a Glaswegian old firm football match with Gazza and Ally McCoist. Ashley from Coronation Street also featured, as did the cast of Emmerdale – and one lucky girl helped to form a human pyramid under the supervision of Johnny Depp.
  • However, if you just want a good night’s sleep without too many dreams, then choose lovely crumbly Cheshire . In this category, over half of all nights were dreamless, while participants stated that 76% of all Cheshire-induced sleeps were either “quite good” or “very good”.

Essentially, there’s no baseline – how often do people dream of celebrities, of work, of old places they knew, without eating cheese? Without a general read on their dreams as standard, you’re data-mining. What if the person dreamt of a celebrity in their old hometown – would that go down to Red Leceister or Cheddar? And Brie made women dream of Jamie Oliver, apparently – is he not a celebrity? This is, essentially, like a dairy form of astrology.

For a final say, I thought I’d go to the source – so I emailed the Cheese Board to get their data. After being popped from pillar to post, I was passed to Dr Neil Stanley – the sleep expert who was quoted in the press release. Having looked him up, he looked legit, so I asked him more about the data.

“Thanks for your email, a few years ago I was asked to provide a quote on the cheese and dreams study you mention however I was not involved in the study in any way and was only given headline results, so unfortunately I don’t have anything to give you.”

Fucking PR for you, there. I told him I understood, but would be interested in his feel for the findings:

“I will try to summarise the issue but essentially I am joining dots to make an explanation, any explanation!, of the cheese and sleep story.

As you know cheese contains an amino acid called tryptophan, (also found in turkey, milk, eggs, nuts, chicken, fish, soy and tofu), which is a precursor for serotonin which is implicated in helping you get to sleep. Cheese also contains tyramine (also found in other foods) which is a precursor for noradrenalin; noradrenalin has been implicated in an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity during sleep which could potentially cause sleep disturbance. The old monoamine theory of sleep says that serotonin and noradrenalin modulate various stages of sleep, although we now know that it is vastly more complex than that. You only remember a dream if you wake up during it, so anything that disturbs sleep will potentially cause you to remember more dreams.

An alternative and just as plausible explanation is that cheese is very high in fat and in burning off those calories overnight causes sleep disturbance, again other food are also high in fat so no explanation accounts for the supposed particular action of cheese on sleep and dreams.

There is no hypothesis about how cheese in particular, and not the other foods, affects the content of dreams but of course the more dreams you remember the more likely you are to have an ‘interesting’ dream.”

So, that’s that then. Lesson of this story – being a skeptic in the office is a time-consuming and exhausting affair. But at least I’ve learnt that a cheese sarnie before bed will help me sleep the exhaustion off. That said, I wonder if white bread makes you sleepwalk… back to Dr Google I go…

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  1. #1 by Dillon J on September 7, 2011 - 14:38

    “200 participants (100 male and 100 female). Six different types of British cheese were given to an equal number of participants”
    Six dosn’t go into 200, even over the 7 days its not equal. (because the rest of the article is flawless!)

  2. #2 by Chakolate on September 8, 2011 - 00:14

    I have noticed that taking calcium before bed makes me sleep better, and others have reported the same. Perhaps it’s the calcium in the cheese as well as the tryptophan.

  3. #3 by Dillon J on September 9, 2011 - 11:30

    Chakolate :I have noticed that taking calcium before bed makes me sleep better, and others have reported the same. Perhaps it’s the calcium in the cheese as well as the tryptophan.

    aside from the likely conformation bias, it could just be that your stomach is full when you go to bed, a simple test (or though not flawless) would be to purchases some calcium pills, and some identical placebos, then get someone to give you one, you don’t know which, every day for 2 weeks. Can you tell which is real, my guess is probably not

  4. #4 by Arielgator on December 4, 2012 - 22:48

    ln south america, we have no popular knoledge about cheese inducing nightmare.

    now about the article, for starter, an study produced by a cheese society about cheese get 0 credibility as its biased toward cheese, Much like a cigarrete company financing an article that finds out that smoking give you no cancer

  5. #5 by dan dennis on March 11, 2013 - 21:30

    What the sleep expert says is that dreams are more commonly remembered when sleep is disturbed, and that if people report more dreams after eating cheese then that means their sleep has been more disturbed after eating cheese, which means cheese disturbs sleep. Hence if you want to sleep well, do not eat cheese in the evening (we do not know how long the effect of cheese lasts, whether eating it for lunch would disturb your sleep or not).

    The sleep disturbance is caused by the tyramine in cheese.

  6. #6 by Belinda on June 9, 2013 - 01:02

    I found those cheese reports from 2005, but wanted to read something with more substance, and found myself here. Solely because I’d been having really random and bizarre dreams this week. I realised Id eaten cheese every day before bed (I love cheese) but the whole concept of it disturbing your sleep makes sense as each night I remember waking up and trying to get back to sleep while thinking about the strange dream I was just in the middle of…

  7. #7 by Belinda on June 9, 2013 - 01:09

    I eat cheddar, or strong tasty cheese. I had two or three slices before leaving for my partners house to sleep. In the morning I’ve just been telling him about my strange dream about work! I work in the car industry, and in my dream an old man stole a colleagues phone, and wouldn’t let them take calls and I (26 year old female) ended up smacking the old man in the head with a pole, trying to help my colleague. (This slightly disturbs me as I’m not a violent person) my dream also featured my trying to vacuum glass from a car and the vacuum no working as it was jammed with foam and seeing needles and pins….strange! Earlier in the week, I dreamt i caught a colleague stealing hard core drugs from a lady in a flat I’d never seen, near a park and I was trying to call the receptionist to warn her…both times I recall eating cheese before bed, but also feel my sleep wa disturbed as I recall waking up multiple times. I do not usually remember my dreams at all so this week has been interesting.

  8. #8 by Inam on October 11, 2013 - 07:01

    I ate lots of mature cheddar for the last two days, and last night I had a nightmare which I do not usually have. It is the lecithin that causes you to remember your dreams. When I take lecithin, without the cheese, I remember my dreams and they are more vivid. So, it is the lecithin in the cheese that makes your brain produce more acetylcholine and enhanced levels of serotonin that make you remember your dreams that you will probably otherwise forget. I took the lecithin isolated from cheese and consistently, everytime for hundreds of times, I remember the previous nights dreams, It is the lecithin.

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